TORONTO – When Wayne Gretzky looks at Canada’s development system he sees a glass that is more than half full and getting fuller by the minute.
And what Gretzky sees is in stark contrast to eight years ago when the inaugural World Cup of Hockey was staged.
Gretzky remembers how after Canada lost the ‘96 World Cup final to the United States, the critics pounced on Canada’s minor hockey system and its development programs. He remembers how the critics crowed about how Canada had lost its edge in producing skilled players in favor of pluggers and plumbers.
Hockey Canada took the initiative on this front with the Molson Open Ice Summit in 1999 that looked deeply into hockey at all levels and recommended changes.
Gretzky is Executive Director of Team Canada in the World Cup of Hockey 2004 and he and his staff are reaping the benefits from recommendations that were brought forward after the Molson Open Ice Summit.
Canada has the second youngest team in the eight-team tournament and the future looks more promising than even when you consider the wealth of young stars on Gretzky’s roster. More than a dozen players on Gretzky’s roster were not members of Team Canada’s gold medal victory at the 2002 Winter Olympics, and that speaks volumes about the depth of the talent pool in Canada.
Gretzky, who was Team Canada’s Executive Director in Salt Lake City, sees the 2002 Olympic gold medal as proof positive that Canada’s development system is back on track.
Turning to the ’04 World Cup, he says while there are similarities between the Olympic and this best-on-best tournaments, there is one major difference.
“The Olympic Games pressure was different because as a country we had not won in 50 years and that was the biggest difference,” says Gretzky. “When you lose and you have not won in a long time, not only do we start to critique that particular team but we critique our game starting at a young level to see if we are doing things properly. So by winning the Olympic gold, it showed that our programs that Canadian Hockey has with the youth, our junior programs ands our national programs are on pretty strong ground right now and we are doing things the right way.
“We are not going to win all the time but we want to win all the time but at least we are showing that the grassroots is being run properly. And that was the success of the Olympic Games and that was the pressure and the microscope we were under. This is a little different. We are a proud country and Canadians in general want to see us win this tournament. They do not like to ever lose.”
All you have to do is glance at Canada’s World Cup roster to see the gems the development program has produced. The proverbial torch is being passed to a younger generation of bright stars.
Gretzky was asked about Vince Lecavalier, the polished centre with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Gretzky recalled the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup title in giving his response. He says Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis personify the winning attitude Canadian players have.
“Each game he (Lecavalier) played last year in the playoffs, he went to another level. The three of them – Levacalier, Richards and St. Louis – you can see them each game getting better and better. The bigger the game, the better they play. That’s why they have Stanley Cup rings on their hands. The pressure does not bother them and they get excited about it and Vince is an incredible talent.
“It is one thing to be talented but if you do not work hard, it is worth nothing and he works extremely hard and he is a joy to watch. If you ever watch him closely when he loses the puck, he does not go for a skate. He stops on a dime and he goes back to get it, His work habits are impeccable. We are thrilled to have him on this team and he will be part of team Canada for a lot of years to come.”
And as far as Gretzky is concerned, there are no two better places for Team Canada to strutt its stuff than the hockey-mad cities Montreal and Toronto because fans there know their hockey and appreciate the players with the maple leaf on their chests.
“Toronto and Montreal are two special cities in our game and the history of those cities will live forever. We are very conscience of the history of the game in Canada and the players themselves they get really excited about playing in Montreal and Toronto.
“This team might be a little different . . . there are only five kids on this team from Ontario and if we look at the past that might be relatively low compared to the past teams. But on the other side we had a lot of French Canadian players and those guys were really fired up about playing in Montreal. If you can’t get fired up about playing in Montreal and Toronto, you are definitely playing in the wrong sport.”